WHANGAREI, NZ – After many months of anticipation, the first match of the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand finally took place on Saturday, with the Lions taking on a Provincial Barbarians side in Whangarei. The Lions stumbled to a sobering 13-7 victory in underwhelming fashion, emphasising the magnitude of the task ahead of them.
Expectations of a comfortable victory were abundant among media and fans ahead of the game, as a Lions team with capped internationals in every position took on a scratch Barbarians side made up of players who are on the fringes of the Super Rugby competition, none of whom has a test cap for their home country. The Lions, however, looked blunt and uninventive in attack, while the Barbarians refused to be blinded by the lights of the occasion and showed great poise on the ball, attacking the Lions at every opportunity. The Barbarians deservedly led 7-3 at half time, before a second half converted try from Anthony Watson and a penalty from replacement fly half Owen Farrell saw the Lions home.
After the game Lions head coach Warren Gatland emphasised that the tourists had only been in the country for two days following 36 hours of travel, attributing the lackluster performance to jet-lag. To me, that is an insufficient excuse; the squad travelled in luxury, accompanied by medical staff who should have been able to advise them on how to structure their sleep during the flight in order to minimise the impact of jet-lag on arrival. These players are professionals who are being paid handsomely for this tour; it is incumbent upon them to prepare meticulously, which includes changing sleeping patterns while traveling. The players who played in Saturday’s game were not involved in the Aviva Premiership or Pro12 final, meaning they had been in camp since 15th May, thus the argument that the side had insufficient time to prepare does not stand up; test match level players and coaches should, in two weeks, be able to put enough of a structure in place both in attack and defence to handily beat a team made up of second-choice Super Rugby players.
Great credit must go to the Barbarians, however, who had 54% possession and showed great commitment in defence and stayed true to the Barbarian tradition of playing attacking rugby. While the performance was not up to the standard the Lions would have wanted, there were some good individual performances; Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty, Ben Te’o and Kyle Sinckler all played well, while Owen Farrell showed some nice touches when he came on.
The Lions will face much sterner tests in the coming week, taking on Super Rugby sides the Auckland Blues on Wednesday and the Canterbury Crusaders on Saturday. The Blues sit in the middle of the Super Rugby standings, while the Crusaders are top of the table, having won all 14 of their games in the competition thus far.
Gatland’s men will need to produce vastly superior performances to their first outing if they are to be competitive in those matches and, while it would be premature to say the tour is over should they lose, substantial improvement in energy levels and execution will need to be seen to confirm the Lions are growing into a test-match ready side. Here’s hoping they produce just that.
Changing gears, here’s our Johnathan Wicklow Barberie with Warren Gatland.
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